My attitude towards meditation is that Awakening (aka “enlightenment”) is possible.
Awakening from what? one might ask. Perhaps, you could say, that I mean to awaken from the apparent paradox of being a tiny self in an infinitely large cosmos. To resolve the contradiction between self and other.
Consider the mystery that crops up when, in an unguarded moment, you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Or when you really appreciate the consciousness behind the eyes of another person. For me, there is a slightly dizzying sense, like stepping into a hall of mirrors. Why am I me, and not you? What does that question even mean? These are all aspects of the greatest mystery — what is existence? Why is there something rather than nothing?
Let’s say you get away from the city and all around you is evidence in the form of wildlife, of geography, of sunshine, starlight, and seasons — evidence of a process taking place, a process that is vaster than we normally appreciate, and yet for all that vastness, also fundamentally more intimate and immediate, urgent even, than the mental chatter and entertainments with which we usually occupy our time.
Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to return to a narrative that puts ourselves into a role of protagonist in a story that revolves around us. Despite the advances of science, our experience is still mostly informed by what we desire and what we wish to avoid. This narrative feels crucially important to us, yet a lifetime barely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one. It cannot be denied that every evening we are one day closer to death. Faced with that scale, how can we continue to pursue our own desires and aversions as though they are the most critical thing? How about the desires and aversions of others? Of those who have not yet been born?
Where do we position ourselves in all this cosmos, such that we are both sane about our perspective and yet retain our human essence, that feelingfulness towards our experience and the experience of others, so that life keeps its vibrancy and wonder? How do we appreciate vastness without becoming a cynic about the value of human experience? How do we recognise all existence as a process without becoming indifferent to its twists and turns?
This mystery stems from a kind of existential groundlessness. One might enjoy the prose of a mythology that explains creation of the world in human-centric terms — and yet, when looking into the eyes of another, if we are truly honest with ourselves there is an enforced agnosticism, in the true sense of that word as meaning to to Not Know what reality is. To Not Know what precisely we are experiencing. We are unable to hold and appreciate each moment without missing the next as it slips past.
It is this vertigo of Not Knowing that I believe we can awaken from, although I should probably say “awaken into”, since the real resolution seems to come when we stop resisting our fundamentally agnostic situation. Awakening is not about acquiring some kind of knowledge around facts.
One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.
Albert Camus, French philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, begins his startling essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”
Which is another (admittedly rather intense) way of phrasing things.
I posit that there is no answer to the question Camus poses for us. For suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue struggling with the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. I perceive that by dropping that very narrative of selfhood, there arises a third alternative. If that great epic drama, which we tell ourselves from sunrise to sunset, is seen as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], instead of a true representation, then selfhood becomes less and less central to the experience of life. Instead we progressively submerse our “self”, through practice in daily life and meditation, in the larger mystery that does us. It is the illusion of being a separate self that we can Awaken from.
However just thinking about experience as a process isn’t enough — amounting merely to dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the above video, “you’re still on the desktop”. We must experience the illusory nature of the self; viscerally; we must glimpse it in our desires, our aversions, our body, our emotions, our relationships; our triumphs and defeats … we must repeat this process, over and over, until it echoes through our experience with each upwelling moment of the constant change that is reality.
Then, that existential groundlessness can become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).
These are the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma, which I follow. I’m pretty sure that others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since, both with and without access to his teachings. But the true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to teach others to undertake this visceral, experiential training, such that they, too, could Awaken. Apply the instructions, put in the effort, and Awakening follows. It is easier to miss the ground as you take a step, than it is to miss Awakening, provided the instructions are good, you understand them, and you put them into practice.
Today I am much more deluded than that. I can write these things, but if enough shit hits the fan, I will forget and the habits will take over. But I’m the process of waking up, just like (I believe) all else is that exists 🙂
This attitude informs my approach.
Posts about Secular vs. Religious Buddhism
Also published on Medium.